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dumb and dumber

at least superficially, la russa bears a lot of similarities to george lee "sparky" anderson, whom he tied for 3d-place on the all-time managerial wins list last night. for starters, they were the same type of player -- light-hitting middle infielders whose anemic bats kept them from getting more than a taste of major-league life. both became managers very young -- la russa at 35, anderson at 36. both have managed juggernaut teams in both leagues -- anderson the big red machine and the '84 tigers, la russa the bash brothers and the '04-'05 cardinals.

the similarities would seem to end there. while la russa is viewed as a cerebral dugout presence, "the genius," anderson was often dismissed as little more than a back-slapping cheerleader, a man of no particular talent surrounded by incredibly talented ballplayers. johnny bench, pete rose, joe morgan, tony perez -- i mean come on, who couldn't win big with those guys? whitey herzog and earl weaver were considered the brainy managers of the day; anderson was simply a lucky one.

bill james in particular dismissed sparky anderson's intelligence. well, that's putting it mildly; james considered sparky a dithering dumbass. here's what he wrote about sparky in the 1983 edition of the baseball abstract:

I think that's what drive me nuts about Sparky Anderson, that he's so full of brown stuff that it just doesn't seem like he has any words left over for a basic, fundamental understanding of the game. I want to look at a player on the basis of what, specifically, he can and cannot do to help you win a baseball game, but Sparky's so full of "winners" and "discipline" and "we ballplayers" and self-consciously asinine theories about baseball that he seems to have no concept of how it is, mechanically, that baseball games are won and lost.

in the next year's abstract, james ran elaborate boxes analyzing all 26 big-league managers. he described anderson, somewhat dismissively, as "an emotional leader. . . . . He's an optimist, a salesman. He's always trying to build up his players, make them see what they are capable of." by contrast, he fawned over the analytical mind of up-and-coming tony la russa, who had just won his 1st division title (for the 1983 chicago white sox):

  • He's a problem solver, a man who reacts strongly to perceived weaknesses and tries to take corrective action.
  • He rotates his personnel quite extensively. . . . . If they'd let him carry 30 people, he'd use them all.
  • [He] made a unique, gutty and productive decision to bat [Carlton] Fisk second, for which he deserves all the credit he has received. Too many managers would have intoned "bat control" and batted [Julio] Cruz or Vance Law second.
  • Although he's not as flashy about it as a Billy Martin, his strategy is calculated to play on the opposing team's mind, disrupt them. He probably does that as effectively as any manager in the league.
  • What is his strongest point as a manager? His inventiveness; his hard-working analytical resourcefulness. He's a beautiful manager to watch.

there's much to be amused about here. for one thing, it's funny that the traits once perceived as la russa's strengths are now attacked as his weaknesses: he overanalyzes, overmanages, outsmarts himself. i make those complaints all the time, and i'm hardly alone. yet at the same time we hear the opposite criticism, the same characterization made of sparky anderson -- he manages on emotion, becomes too loyal to his ballplayers, lets his heart get in the way of his head. i and others lodged that very criticism just this month, re tony's baffling (mis)handling of jason marquis.

so, to sum up the brief against tony: he's simultaneously too brainy and too sentimental. well hell, how many managers are capable of that?

i think that as a manager ages, he naturally comes to be seen as dated, an old fossil whom the game has passed by. in 1984 anderson was viewed as a dottering old ignoramus, completely clueless about the emerging new "science" of baseball, sabermetrics -- then in its nascence, understood only by earl weaver and the bill james readership. today sabermetrics has reached an even wider audience thanks to moneyball, and la russa -- whom james back in 1984 considered a cutting-edge manager who "got" sabermetrics -- is now positioned as a hopelessly clueless old-schooler, a representative of the entrenched old order that billy beane, theo epstein et al are in the process of toppling. indeed, tony seems to view himself in this light; 3 nights in august goes out of its way to rebut some of the ideas espoused in moneyball.

in truth, la russa simply represents one of the few baseball principles that all generations -- pre-sabr, post-james, post-moneyball, whatever -- can agree upon: the more games a guy manages, the stupider he gets. but wait -- the same year bill james mocked anderson as a hopeless dolt, he led the tigers to 104 wins and a world championship. so perhaps tony, having arrived at sparky anderson's win plateau, is now finally dimwitted enough to win another world title.

in any case, congratulations mr la russa; long may your idiocy reign, and we st louisans bask in its dull reflection.